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Spain's Effort to Atone for Expelling Jews Met with Antisemitism Accusations

FILE - A man wearing a Jewish yarmulke listens during a news conference at the Royal Spanish Academy in Madrid, Spain, Feb. 20, 2018.

Marcos Cabrera Coronel can trace his Jewish ancestry back to the 15th century, when Spain expelled tens of thousands of Sephardic Jews.

So, after Spain announced in 2015 it wanted to atone for the expulsion of Jews in 1492 by offering Spanish citizenship to those who could prove their links to Spain, Cabrera wanted to take advantage of this opportunity.

Like thousands of others in developing countries, this Venezuelan businessman sought to escape political and economic strife at home and forge a new life for his family in the European Union.

He spent $63,500 to try to get Spanish passports for nine Venezuelan family members and after securing certificates from three Jewish organizations vouching for his links to Spain.

However, four of the nine applications were refused in March.

“I was devastated. We had spent our family savings. We wanted to do this to give my family a better chance in life than they can expect in Venezuela,” the 66-year-old businessman from Valencia, in Venezuela, told VOA.

He is among more than 3,000 Jewish applicants who have been refused nationality by the Spanish government this year, prompting to accusations of antisemitism by lawyers and activists who say there is no reason why Jewish applicants should be turned down.

The matter has prompted Teresa Leger Fernandez, a Democrat from state of New Mexico in the U.S. House of Representatives to raise the matter with the White House.

In Spain, politicians from the conservative People's Party to Jon Iñarritu of the Basque nationalist Bildu party have demanded answers from the Spanish government over the refusal of so many Jewish people.

The Spanish government denies the claim of antisemitism, as does the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities and other lawyers involved in aiding applicants.

Ancient and modern history

In 1492, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile ended Muslim rule in Spain and ordered the expulsion of Jews and Muslims.

Thousands converted to Christianity while many thousands more left the Iberian peninsula to live around the world.

FILE - Children stand near the "El Transito" synagogue and Sephardic Museum in Toledo, Spain, Feb. 27, 2014.
FILE - Children stand near the "El Transito" synagogue and Sephardic Museum in Toledo, Spain, Feb. 27, 2014.

Under the 2015 law, applicants had to show some proof of their Sephardic ancestry.

For Jewish people this could be shown through a genealogical report documenting their family history.

For so-called conversos – those whose family had been forced to convert to Catholicism – this could be shown through practices that were passed through generations.

Applications had to be certified by a Jewish community in the country of birth or residence and or the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities. They also had to certify a link with Spain. This would be certified by a notary.

The Spanish Justice Ministry conducted final checks.

The program ran between 2015 and 2019, during which time Spain received 63,873 applications, according to the Spanish justice ministry. Of these 36,168 were approved while 3,020 were refused. Thousands more are under consideration.

A source close to the investigation cites a 2018 unpublished police report from a Spanish embassy in an unidentified Latin American country that warned a criminal organization could be fraudulently trying to get citizenship for descendants of Sephardic Jews.

Two businessmen in Colombia were allegedly selling services to thousands of applicants who they promised to help get Spanish passports, according to a source with knowledge of the alleged fraud, who did not want to be named. Only notaries based in Spain are legally allowed to do this.

After the police investigation, Spain changed the rules so that applicants had to get a certificate of Sephardic ancestry from their local Jewish groups.

Before the rule change, Jewish organizations outside an applicants' home country offered to issue Sephardic certificates because in some Latin American countries, they were extremely expensive.

Following the rule change, 3019 applications were rejected this year compared with one in 2020.


Luis Portero, a lawyer who helped draft the original 2015 law, said Jewish applicants were being turned down because the Spanish government failed to properly to explain applicants about the rule change.

“Hundreds of Jewish applicants are being rejected and this proves antisemitism,” he told VOA.

Dr. Sara Koplik, of the Jewish Federation of New Mexico in the U.S., which helped applications, said she believed the Spanish government had closed the door on Jews who complied with regulations.

The 50-year-old academic who is an expert on Sephardic Jews spent $8,700 on her application but was rejected this year.

“This was a very limited program with stringent rules and several years later was just thrown out after everybody had spent millions [on applications]. That is why this seems like prejudice. It does not make any sense.” she told VOA.

However, other lawyers involved in the process and the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities, refuted these claims, saying those who were rejected did not comply with the rules.

“There were people who did not comply with the requirements to get citizenship perhaps because they were not living in Jewish communities. It is not a case of anti-Semitism at all.” Alberto de Lara Bendahan, a Spanish lawyer, told VOA.

A source from the Spanish Justice Ministry told VOA: “The applications were refused because they did not comply with the requirements of the law in some way. We do not know or ask for their religious beliefs.”